History has never been my best subject. But as far back as I can remember I have been interested in science. As a kid in the 1960s before computers and the Internet were available to everyone, I became intensely interested in electronics and especially amateur radio. In ways I can’t explain, communicating over thin air without wires fascinated me. Like many of my peers, my interest grew through my teen years leading me into a career in engineering. Also like them, this intensity resulted in a certain lack of well-roundedness in my education—history being one of the subjects I neglected.
But as the decades passed I gradually discovered an interest in history. Whether or not this age-related progression is common, I can’t say—I know plenty of kids who are interested in history and plenty of adults not interested at all—but for me it was natural to become interested specifically in the history of radio. Beyond a small number of books and occasional articles, I found precious little material about early amateur radio, until the ARRL began making the entire QST magazine archive available on Compact Discs. I began reading those issues from the beginning. Once I got comfortable with the odd language I quickly became engrossed in the people, events, technology, and stories, most of which had never made it into books or summary articles and were therefore all new to me. I decided to write about it myself—at first in the form of informal notes—without any idea where it might lead. It was just a new hobby within a hobby.
ARRL will be 100 years old in April of 2014. The national association for amateur radio in the United States was founded as the American Radio Relay League, reflecting its original purpose: relaying messages using radio. Like other organizations whose full names have outlived their original charters (AT&T and IBM come to mind), it is known today simply as ARRL. What better time to get my notes down on virtual paper than the ARRL centennial?
That is the genesis of this blog. My intent is to take the reader on a history tour of amateur radio, told from the perspective of an active ham. I don’t know where I will end up—there are over 1100 issues of QST and I’m only up to about 1940 as of today (the end of 2012). But rather than wait until I figure that out, and in good 21st century fashion, I decided to write it in installments as a blog.
This will not be an exhaustive documentation of every occurrence, person, organization and technology. Instead, it will unfold as a collection of stories about the individuals and events that struck me as particularly interesting. This is also about the evolution of our understanding of radio, propagation, technologies, and relationships with the public, government, industry, and academia. Compared with reading each issue of QST, it will fall far short. But perhaps it can be used as a guide for your own exploration of QST and other written accounts of amateur radio from its beginnings.
Without having experienced it directly, it is easy to lose appreciation for what came before one’s own time. That is especially true in amateur radio since there are very few who documented and discussed those early times—DeSoto in particular with his book Two Hundred Meters and Down, and more recently in writings by John Dilks, K2TQN in his QST column, Vintage Radio. The 75, 50 and 25 Years Ago in QST columns have interesting short summaries and are possible to breeze through without a sense for the continuous flow of events.
As good as the QST record is, however, we can only hope to approximate what it was like to have lived through ham radio’s early years. Everyone who experienced that time is gone. In 1938, ARRL Secretary Kenneth Warner wished someone had thought to make recordings of what the bands sounded like going back through the years1. I find myself wishing the same thing. We can readily get antique equipment, restore it, understand its design, even use it on the air and get a feeling for what it sounds like on today’s bands. But we can never hear what it was actually like back then.
Reading Early QST
An unfamiliar style of speaking and writing makes reading the early QST issues difficult and it takes some getting used to. Spending the time to get comfortable with it rewards you with some fascinating reading. The glossary page should help you navigate through old or obsolete technical jargon and popular idioms.
Style aside, the writings of editors, authors and correspondents were often poignant, poetic, humorous and brimming with enthusiasm. Their own words and phrasing often add color that conveys a feeling for their times and attitudes much more vividly than I could. In those cases I made extensive use of brief excerpts and I encourage readers to follow the references for more such delights hidden among the thousands of pages of QST.
I am grateful to the ARRL for its gracious permission to use such excerpts and selected images, without which I’m certain much of the life would have been missing from this writing.
Some early articles illustrate attitudes and common language of the time that today would be considered anachronistic at best and offensive at worst. But they do not detract from the essential stories and it is possible to view those instances with the understanding of hindsight and a few decades of social evolution.
As I have, you may find yourself developing a deeper appreciation, even a certain affection for the individuals who built amateur radio and the League, particularly Maxim and his early collaborators.
When I think that many of the individuals who played major roles in the very early days were still around when I started in ham radio, I also find myself regretting having lost the opportunity to interview some of them. Standard youth-induced shortsightedness I suppose. As I said, history was never my best subject.
- Kenneth Warner, The Editor’s Mill, QST, February 1938, 7. He had also written in December 1922 about recording signals using a Dictaphone. ↩